In this three-part series of posts, I shared my experiences studying for candidacy exams. There was a point where I seriously thought this was never going to happen, stuck in a timeless space where goals and deadlines had no meaning. It was that last month where I started to feel grounded, like a survivalist mode kicking in, ready to focus. All of the doubts about not passing reached a peak the week before, until it was over. And then…I passed! I learned so much in that last month, spilling over into the weeks leading up to writing this post. This is Part 3 of 3.
I’m sitting in my living room. It’s about 11 in the morning, and all that’s in front of me is a coffee table and the pair of glasses I removed from my face, rubbing the bridge of my nose. I’m rethinking so much. What did I say? What did they think? What’s going to happen to me? Is it too late to make a career change? Then, I get a text message: “Congrats! Come back.” I walk back to my computer, and my advisor gives me the news: I passed candidacy exams!! I’m cheering and laughing, with a smile that stretches out my face. My committee breaks the news, then responds to my reaction with applause. Months of sleepless nights, a painstaking schedule of reading, and laboring to make sure I feel ready lead up to this moment. I can wholeheartedly state that it was all worth it. This was not solely a year of studying, but years and years of work, studying for the GRE, taking classes and going to conferences to learn the vocabulary of my field, several PhD application cycles. The news doesn’t feel real for a moment, with all of the doubt this morning I had fleeting into nothingness. When my committee tells me how happy they are, I begin to really feel it, giving me passage into this new stage of my program. This may be what limbo feels like. My advisor ends the meeting by telling me that I need to email him to revisit my dissertation prospectus in order to begin the dissertation writing process. I start to envision what that would be like, until he tells me, “You just passed exams…..take a break. You earned it”. I’m now sitting in a coffee shop, doing just that, taking the necessary time to process it all, reflecting on how I got here.
The weeks before my exam date were the oddest. I was in the process of winding down my reading list while trying to predict what the exam will be like. I got to the point where tasks like cooking or holding a conversation were now impossible, as textbooks on medical humanities and graphic novels from the late 90s began to occupy those parts of my brain. Two weeks before my exam date, I was asleep in my bed, and a bug flew into my ear. It was the strangest thing, trying to figure out what exactly was happening, only to realize an actual physical creature that I did not invite is now in my ear canal. I was so horrified about the chances of this thing laying eggs in my brain, or dying while inside of me, mortified by the idea of needing bug-removal surgery right before exams. I stepped outside, stamping my head, trying to get it out. The buzzing it made as it flapped its wings is a sound I won’t be forgetting anytime soon. I pinched my nose and shook my head until I heard it fall out. It made the sound a quarter makes when dropped to the ground. I went to the student clinic to get checked out after feeling really nauseous a coupe of days later, along with a sharp pain between my eyes. The nurse who checked me out said there were no remnants of insect life, and nothing wrong with me, saying that my symptoms were most likely stress-related. I walked home, trying to figure out the symbolism of this bug, flying inside of my head two weeks before exams. I had nothing. I was too busy calculating how much time I lost and figuring out how to make up for it.
The week before exams was dedicated to working on flashcards for every text on my reading list. When I started studying for exams, several of my friends swore by this system: know, at minimum, a flashcard’s worth of information for every book on your list. This process was very much the most laborious part of studying for the exam, making sure I wrote down what my committee wanted me to know about each book. Years ago, when I was writing a Final for a class during my MA, I thought about how much is needed to know when writing a project when so much knowledge is needed. This phrase popped into my head: Words are like bricks. Today, you a building a cathedral. As I worked on y flashcards, I now had a physical representation of what that meant. I was at home, writing one flashcard after another, seeing them pile up higher and higher, until I had a pallet worth of flashcards. I had no idea if this was going to help, questioning its efficacy at about two-thirds of the way in. I was exhausted once I finished these cards, feeling like I spent the last few days erecting the support beams to the cathedral I was building. It’s nice to see a physical product after so much work, but (I know it’s a sin to say this, but…) I was so goddamn tired.
A few days before submitting my dissertation prospectus and beginning the writing exam process, I had the last several texts to finish, planned out for this moment. They were documentaries, showcasing medical narratives that emphasized what life was like after coming to grips with their new state of being, from a psychological perspective, or biological, or emotional. When I talk about medical humanities, so many people ask me, Why the hell do you study something that is so depressing? There are so many ways I could respond to such a question. (the first being, “Why don’t we both focus on our work and leave each other alone?”) Another way to respond is by discussing what some of these works have to offer. One of the documentaries I watched was called Evelyn (watch the trailer below), focused on a family processing their grief after one of the sons committed suicide. Yes, it was tragic, and just searching for the film on Netflix feels voyeuristic in every terrible sense of the word. But after you start to see what the filmmakers are trying to accomplish, your attitude shifts completely as you witness what the family experiences, seeing their walk metaphorically represent how far they have come with processing their grief. The siblings decide to trek through the British mountainside as they share and open up to each other about their own grief process. As I watched this film, thinking about how it relates to my fields of interest, the gravity of the movie takes over, with its scenes of raw emotion and beautiful cinematography. Pairing closure with the bucolic landscapes becomes arresting, as if you are a part of their trek. It’s a lot to respond to, but the more you learn about the family and witness their exchanges, you can’t help but wish to see them address their grief, bit by bit. There are not a lot of texts from my reading lists that I like recommending, mainly because most of them are theory books or need a medical dictionary to get through; (to those reading this) I highly recommend watching this. See it when you need a good cry, or when you’re on the brink of losing faith in humanity. I just really like those moments when I come across a text from my list and think, You know, I think others might like this too.
As the days soon started falling like dominos, getting closer and closer to my exam date, I think about what will happen after. What will dissertation writing feel like? Is it time to start thinking about the job market? Is academia the direction I want to go in? It takes about four seconds to remember that these questions are contingent on actually passing the exam. I’m a nervous wreck trying to prepare, trying to predict what questions I will be asked. The day I completed my written exam, which was seven days before my oral exam, I submitted it to my department chair and exam committee. I felt good completing the exam. It felt like the questions were asking me, You are studying something you are passionate about: show us just how passionate you are. I had 72 hours to finish, and after a lot of writing, a lot of book scanning, and a lot of breaks via Nightwalking, I finished it, and felt confident. It made prepping for the final days a little easier, but I knew this was only one part of that exam. I went to bed that night, feeling like I may be in good standing. At about 1am, I heard someone crying outside of my apartment. I thought it was my roommate’s TV or something. Then I heard screaming. I open my eyes, and hear the sounds of a young woman calling for help, yelling “Helllllp!!!” and “Somebody help me!” This felt so unreal, that I wasn’t sure it was happening. I heard another cry for help, “Please help….” I run to the balcony and call out to the voice. A young woman was hiding in the bushes next to my apartment building. I finally see her, a leg sticking out of the bush, and I run downstairs. I finally see her, and she [Editor’s Note: for the safety of this young woman, Seekinginfinitejest.com will refrain from using her name or describing her appearance]. It was not difficult to see that she was sexually assaulted. I walk up to her and ask what happened. She doesn’t answer, as she continues to cry profusely. I ask her if I should call the police, but she then blurts out, instructing me not to. She begins to stand up, until a pair of headlights become visible down my street, then screams and hides back inside the bushes. It was clear that this person was still in danger and needed immediate help. I walk up to her and tell her I’m getting her a Lyft home. I ask her for her address, and she gives it to me as she begins to stand. Then I remember that rideshares require facemasks, so I run back to my place and grab a spare one. As I’m running up the stairs and grabbing the facemask, I remember something my brother told me about how sociologists study what “evil” is, observing human behavior by putting actors in positions of harm and tracking how people respond, and/or whether or not someone actually helps them. I think about this as the young woman is outside of my apartment, and I think to myself, I can’t be someone that does not act. I give her the mask and the Lyft ride soon shows up. I tell the driver what is happening, and to text me once she gets dropped off. The driver knew exactly how to respond. I walk over to her, telling her that the driver is aware of what is happening. She gives me a hug, then gets into the car. The whole time I’ve been studying, I’ve been asking myself, How do I enter such a space that is academia? Thinking about all of the horrible things happening today, with COVID, climate change, social justice, and her, and I think, Maybe I should be asking, “what am I bringing to the field?” The Lyft driver never sent me a text. I have no idea what happened to her after our exchange. I can only pray that she ended up at her location safely. This is all I can offer her. I have no choice but to go back to sleep and continue prepping the next morning, with exams less than a week away.
The days leading up to my oral exam were solely studying and memorization. At one point, my head felt like it weighed a thousand pounds. I studied all of my flashcards, read as much as my body permitted, tried to get the amount of sleep that’s right between “not enough” and “just right”. The morning of, I meet my committee via Zoom, and the exam starts. I respond to each question with complete sentences, but it feels like a cascade of marbles falling out of my mouth. It’s one question after another, reminding myself to breathe in between. Two hours later, I’m sitting in my living room, second-guessing every response. I take the blue-light blocker glasses off of my face, rubbing the bridge of my nose. Every voice of doubt in my head takes advantage of this, making me second-guess everything. Then, I get the text: Congrats! Come back. All of the work, the hours in the library, the stacks of books in my living room, the flashcards I spent days and sleepless nights studying- all of that is now behind me, as I get the news, with several inches of air now underneath my feet, floating for the next several days. I step out to get some breakfast. Thanks to not working for three months to focus on exams, I had about $47 in my checking account. I felt like the richest guy to ever order a grande half-tea/half-lemonade. A Negroni would be amazing, but it’s about 11 in the morning, and I’m feeling confident (but not that confident). It’s over, and I’m happy that it’s over.
Being done is such a strange feeling. A year’s worth of past events rush into my memory, as I think about how I got to this point. After eight months and two semesters of quarantine and distance learning, I have finally reached this bench mark. Looking back, my year wasn’t so bad, save being miserable while reading for exams under quarantine. I taught this amazing class on Empathy as a tool for Critical thinking; I presented at the International Conference of Narrative; I had an article published, and I won a grant for my research. These were all great experiences, but the question in front of me now is…Now what? The next benchmark is dissertation writing. I will now engage in the research I came to OSU to do. But I don’t wish to lose myself in the research along the way. I have to do the writing I wish to do. That includes remembering what got me here, and who I am as I continue to progress, as I close in on the tail-end of my program.
I wish to make two dedications to this piece:
The first is to a tragedy I did not take enough time to acknowledge as it happened several days before the exam. Earlier in August, author, teacher, and the inspiration to a lot of my colleagues, Mike Rose, passed away. His book Lives On the Boundaries was a book I was assigned as I was doing Teaching Associate training during my MA program. It’s one thing to say that a book changed your life; for me, his book reminded me to remember who I am as I seek a career in teaching. I had the chance to meet him during that training program. He spoke and did a small book signing. I still have his signature in my book, along with one more morsel of wisdom: Here’s to you- you understand in your bones the students in this book. I took his words with me after that program, and will continue to do so until my bones can no longer hold me up.
The second is a tribute to my committee. I’ve heard so many grad school horror stories about advisors being terrible to their students, or how easy it is to feel like you’re on the backburner of their work at times when you may need them the most. With them, I never felt unsupported, or like they didn’t care about my research and progress. I wouldn’t have completed the work I set out to if it wasn’t for them. Here is a brief introduction of them (in alphabetical order, to avoid favoritism):
(Sidenote: click on their names to see their academic websites. They do such amazing work!)
Frederick Aldama: Profé was one of the first mentors I had at OSU, getting involved in so many academic programs and clubs. Best of luck to you as you move to UT Austin- your footprint at OSU was an indelible one, and the students under your guidance here will not forget your impact any time soon. I consider myself fortunate to have you on my committee, and I look forward to keeping in touch.
Jared Gardner: Gardner has been my advisor since coming to OSU. It is so crazy to have an advisor who can also share stories about your mentors from other campuses. His guidance and words of wisdom via emails is a great touch to his mentorship, but more importantly, he’s been there for me in the clutch of it all and pulled me out so many fires. I consider myself fortunate to have you on my committee, and I look forward to continuing to learn under your mentorship.
Julia Hawkins: The moment I found out grad students can have professors from other departments on their committee, Julia was the first person I thought of. We got in touch as I got more involved in working on medical humanities. It’s unfortunate that the pandemic made our work difficult to continue, but I’m not going anywhere, and working with her has been nothing but a pleasure. I consider myself fortunate to have you on my committee, and I look forward to your guidance learning more about this crazy discipline.
James Phelan: I’ve always envied students in Ivy League universities who attend classes by professors who are the top of their field, teaching the book they wrote. Phelan is that guy. He is a huge name in the field of narratology, but the best the part is that you wouldn’t know it after meeting him. He’s one of the most humblest, caring, and empathetic professors I’ve ever had in my entire academic trajectory. More than half of the things I’ve accomplished my time at OSU are a direct result of his help, and I do not take that for granted. I consider myself fortunate to have you on my committee, and I look forward to continuing to work under your wing.